Dr. Cheryl White drew a crowd of 134 people to the Laramie County Public Library in Cheyenne. Young and old filled the Cottonwood Room to hear a presentation on the Shroud of Turin from one of the world’s top Shroud historians.
The Shroud of Turin is a strip of linen fourteen and a half feet long that has been housed at San Giovanni Battista Cathedral in Turin, Italy, since 1578. Prior to that, it made its first modern appearance in the hands of a French knight, Geoffroi de Charnay, in 1354. It has the distinction of being the single most studied object in the world.
Since its appearance in France, it has been an object of veneration and controversy. Those who venerate it believe it is the strip of linen referred to by the apostles, Matthew (27:59) and John (20:5-7), in their report of Jesus’ resurrection. Others believe it to be either a masterpiece from an unknown artist, or a cynical medieval hoax.
Two features of the Shroud are immediately visible to the naked eye. First, it has the faint, full-scale image of a man with arms crossed over his waist. Second, the cloth appears to contain numerous blood stains.
In 1898, Italian photographer, Secondo Pia, made a startling discovery. While developing the first photographs taken of the shroud, he saw that the film’s negative image was an anatomically perfect, positive image of a man.
This discovery, enabled by the emerging technology of photography, led to the application of dozens more scientific experiments over the next century. The most extensive battery of experiments was conducted by the Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP) in 1978.
STURP was led by physicist John P. Jackson with the permission of King Humberto II, then-owner of the Shroud. Two dozen researchers — atheists, Jews, agnostics and Christians — examined the Shroud around the clock between Oct. 9 and 13 in the Cathedral of Turin.
Data collected by these scientists continues to be accessed and analyzed to this day. The project itself issued a final report in 1981 that ended, “We can conclude for now that the Shroud image is that of a real human form of a scourged, crucified man. It is not the product of an artist. The blood stains are composed of hemoglobin and also give a positive test for serum albumin. The image is an ongoing mystery and until further chemical studies are made, perhaps by this group of scientists, or perhaps by some scientists in the future, the problem remains unsolved.”
The STURP project was happening while Cheryl White was in college. It captured her attention and set her feet on a life-long journey of “sindonology” (study of the Shroud). However, in 1988, that journey was redirected by a press conference held at the British Museum in London.
There, on Oct. 13, scientists announced that Carbon 14 analysis dated the cloth between 1260 and 1390 A.D. This was supposed confirmation that the Shroud’s sudden appearance in 1354 France was the work of a medieval artist.
These results were trumpeted out in 500 newspapers around the world, causing most people to lose any further interest in the Shroud. White did not lose her fire, but she did shift her focus to the question of how an unknown medieval artist could produce the amazing detail both of blood stains and a photographic negative imprinted on a non-photosensitive medium (linen).
All the while, those who were closest to the STURP project questioned the C-14 results. Not only is there no historical record of any technique that could produce the type of image found on the Shroud, neither is there any known artist skilled enough to make that image anatomically perfect.
More than that, Shroud historians were aware of The Hungarian Pray Manuscript that has an undisputed date before 1195. In the pages of this manuscript, are several illustrations that clearly depict the Shroud. How could an object from the mid-14th century be illustrated in a late-12th-century manuscript? Even the earliest date of the C-14 analysis could not solve this riddle.
Beginning in 2003 the C-14 dating was increasingly challenged on scientific grounds. Then, last year a paper was published in the journal “Archeometry” that examined newly acquired raw data from the 1988 study. This data decisively undercut confidence in the medieval dating of the Shroud.
When asked why there was such a high turnout for her Saturday-morning presentation in Cheyenne, White said, “I think there is just a very high interest in the Shroud right now, probably more than there has been in the last 40 years, because of the invalidation of the Carbon-14 dating.” Pressed on whether “invalidation” accurately describes the effect of the 2019 paper, she replied, “Oh, it absolutely does.”
With the “medieval artist theory” invalidated, evidence from pollen, soil analysis, hematology, historical references and dozens of other scientific disciplines are now being given greater weight. If your interest is piqued, Barrie M. Schwortz, one of the original members of the STURP team, maintains a site at shroud.com. Dr. White also has a 36-part podcast at manoftheshroud.wordpress.com.
Currently, there is no conclusive data that would rule out a 1st-century origin of the Shroud. At the end of the day, that is the only definitive word we will ever be able to say. As scientific techniques become ever more exacting, alternative theories may be positively excluded and the probability of authenticity grow ever higher. But, lacking a complete chain of evidence, no one will ever be able to prove positively that it is the actual burial cloth that wrapped Jesus’ body from His deposition to the empty tomb.
This is not to say, however, that the Shroud is an irrelevant distraction, either to believers in Christ or to unbelievers. It is a real object in the real world. Nobody can deny its existence. Nor can they deny the many known and unknown facts about it.
It holds a certain type of blood (AB), a specific number of pollen types from plants located in specific locales, along with soil from a certain kind of limestone. The fabric has a very distinctive weave of linen from a definite species of flax.
The body that was wrapped in the linen was a male five feet, 10 inches tall, weighing approximately 170 lbs. He has a detailed and measurable pattern of wounds — as well as a very specific body position (likely due to rigor mortis).
Whether that man is the Man Christians worship, or a detailed copy, the Shroud remains the perfect confluence of science and faith. Doubtless it holds still more evidence to be revealed in the future.
Whatever you believe about the Shroud, it is no wonder that it has become the most studied object in the world. If authentic, it is material evidence of Jesus’ resurrection. If not, it was created by a technology that not even the most learned scientists can fathom. This alone, commends it for further study.
I, for one, am grateful to the Laramie County Library for bringing this tantalizing information to Cheyenne. Perhaps the Uinta County Library would be interested in bringing Dr. White to Evanston as well.
Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.